He wants a real rest soaking up the sun on exotic unspoiled beaches. She wants lots of hiking, with time to roam through Greek or Roman monuments and prowl museums.
All they have in common is three weeks of vacation time, a distaste for hordes of tourists - and precious little money.At this point, I leap to my feet and scream, "CRETE!"
I tell the historian that Crete gave birth to Europe's oldest civilization. That Crete's monumental Minoan palaces were created 16 centuries before the birth of Christ, 10 centuries before the marble was quarried for the Parthenon. I've got her.
Then I tell the sun worshiper to make sure he goes to the south coast of Crete, away from the north shore and its tourists. I tell him that the water that laps the south coast was recently rated in an international survey as the purest to be found on any coast of the Mediterranean. His eyes light up.
If I am sure of their ability to forgo some standard American creature comforts, I play my trump: "Want to hear about this little pension where I stayed for three weeks for $207? Including breakfast daily, about 10 dinners and a whole lot of wine and cold Pepsis in between?"
I tell them that despite the dollar's precipitous decline in many other exchanges, the Greek drachma is now about 133 to the dollar, about what it was when I visited Crete almost a year ago.
Crete is a mountainous island, 152 miles long and 35 miles across at its widest. It lies halfway between mainland Greece and Asia Minor, where the first Cretans came from around 3000 B.C. Due south are Libya and Egypt; on a summer day, that hot wind from the south is the sirocco, blowing across the Libyan Sea straight from the sands of the Sahara.
In the ancient world, Crete was a crossroads for Asia Minor, Africa and Europe. Thucydides credited Crete's King Minos as being the first to control the Aegean with his fleet; Homer described the densely populated cities of Knossos and Phaestos. The mainland Greeks, who began settling Crete in massive waves around 1100 B.C., retained a fascination with Crete as a source of myths and legends - from Icarus to the Minotaur.
The landscape is wildly beautiful, harsh and rocky. The sea views on the south coast are strangely haunting. On the most brilliantly sunny day, the towering offshore islands are almost always veiled in mist, and the line where deep blue sky meets sea is never a sharp one.
Pension Pelikano, where we stayed, is an L-shaped building of white stucco with a walled garden that completes the rectangle. The dining room is open to the garden, where an almond tree towers above the riot of geraniums, nasturtiums, roses, fuchsia and bougainvillea. We frequently harvested the garden's lemon tree as we descended the circular staircase from our rooms on the second floor.
The pension is wonderfully situated, a short walk down a hill from the village of Kamilari and a short drive from all of the following:
- The old international hippie hangout of Matala with its cliffs and caves, its good beach-front restaurants and lively night life.
- Phaestos, one of the legendary Minoan palaces, and Aghia Triada, a Minoan summer villa.
- Gortys, the remarkably preserved capital of Crete under the Romans, who captured the island in 69 BC after a three-year struggle. Gortys grew to be a city of 300,000, which left behind not only Roman temples, plazas and a bath but also a large early Christian basilica, testimony to the Apostle Titus, who settled there and spread the new religion.
The Minoan marvels: The tourist biggie, of course, is the palace at Knossos, where Sir Arthur Evans began his excavations in the 1890s. He called the culture he found there Minoan, after Minos, the legendary king of Crete. The civilization lasted more than 1,500 years, from 2600 to 1100 B.C. Around 1700 B.C., the three major palaces - at Knossos, Phaestos and Mallia - were destroyed by earthquake, rebuilt and enlarged.
In 1450 B.C. the palaces were destroyed by another quake - possibly related to the catastrophic explosion that blew away half of the island of Santorini to the north. This time they were not rebuilt.
Evans began his excavation at Knossos, about 10 miles outside the modern city of Heraklion. The restoration of the palace at Knossos is stunningly impressive, but I found it far less moving than the original Minoan treasures to be found in Heraklion's archaeological museum - sculpture, metalwork, frescoes and pottery decorated with extraordinary freshness, sophistication and gaiety - or the unrestored palace at Phaestos and a royal villa called Aghia Triada.
The palace at Phaestos and the villa at Aghia Triada were excavated but remain just as the centuries left them. An exquisite sarcophagus from Aghia Triada, now in the Heraklion museum, is covered with elaborate and colorful painted scenes of a bull sacrifice, a processional and goddesses riding in a chariots that give some idea of the sophistication of this civilization.
Like Knossos, Phaestos has a long rectangular court running north and south with many small rooms grouped around it, a theater area and two imposing flights of stairs. Here was found the Phaestos disc, the world's first known example of printing, a written text impressed on clay with the aid of letter stamps. This too is in the museum. Although the mainland Greeks had yet to arrive on Crete when the Minoans built, the siting of all three Cretan masterworks - Phaestos, Aghia Triada and Knossos - is as flawless as the Parthenon or the temple of Apollo at Delphi on the mainland.
The Samaria gorge: The deepest gorge in Europe is not somewhere in the Alps. It is a spectacular chasm on the south coast of Crete, starting high in the mountains. You begin the 11-mile trek by walking down a forested mountain face on a series of switchbacks, well maintained and boasting benches and drinking fountains courtesy of the Greek government, which made the gorge a national park in 1962.
Suddenly, you are aware of rushing water, a gin-clear stream at the bottom of the gorge. The stream goes underground several times, always resurfacing a little wider. Six times as the gorge descends you have to cross the stream on stepping stones.
The gorge is a magical place, reminiscent of Delphi. The ancient mainland Greeks must have thought so too; they established a second temple to Apollo in the gorge and a second oracle.
After a walk through a forest of pink and white oleander growing wild, the hike ends at Aghia Roumeli, a charming little harbor town with no access by road. A boat takes you along the coast to Sfakia, over water of the deepest, most intense blue I have ever seen, where you pick up a bus for the ride home.
This memorable excursion began at 5:30 a.m., when the bus picked us up on the road. The ride to Omalos, where the gorge begins, takes more than three hours, the hike itself about six, and the return trip another three hours.
Tickets can be purchased for $36 at the tourist office in Matala, where one can also rent a car for about $150 week.
The beaches: These are Crete's crowning glory, sandy on the north coast, pebbled on the south. The north coast has drawn the tourist development, leaving the south coast mercifully free of the condominiums and high rises that have exploded on beautiful beaches from Spain to Mexico.
Our favorite everyday beach was Kalamaki, two miles from our pension in Kamilari. Its lone restaurant, the Scorpios, served the same marvelous food we found all over Crete - first mexes, appetizers of olives, cheeses, pickled vegetables, smoked herring or fried octopus, squid or shrimp. Then taromosalata, a sort of apricot-colored pate made with fish roe. Then a host of entrees that always included excellent grilled fresh fish.
Topless bathing is common at our neighborhood beaches of Kalamaki and Matala, as it is today throughout Crete. But nude bathing is only allowed out of view of the Cretans. To sample that, keep walking left from the Scorpios restaurant along Kalamaki beach. It becomes Kommos beach - beautiful, untouched, nude.
One day, we stopped at a taverna high in the mountains in a village called Akoumia. As we chatted over some cool local wine, a man came over and asked if he could join us. For 25 years he has lived in Astoria, a Greek enclave in the New York borough of Queens, he said. He comes back to Crete every summer with his wife and daughter, and as soon as the daughter finishes college, he is moving home to open a restaurant on what he called "the most beautiful beach on Crete."
"There is nothing there now, nothing. And it is so beautiful." We coaxed directions out of him, and followed them a few days later, taking the only other road out of Akoumia.
After 15 minutes of bouncing down a rough gravel road, we came down through a pass and there it was - the beach of your dreams, curving for over a mile from towers of rock on the left to the plunging cliffs that framed it on the right. And not another soul.
My son found some bamboo branches and fashioned a sheet into a tent for shelter from the fierce sun. I dipped a cotton scarf into the sea and draped it around a wine bottle to cool it. My daughter-in-law went for a swim. Bliss.